How Roy Hibbert Learned to Protect the Rim by Going Straight Up


In Game 1, the Knicks missed 17 of the 30 shots they took from within five feet of the basket. That’s a 43.3% conversion rate. That’s awful. For perspective, the Charlotte Bobcats were the NBA’s worst team at finishing shots inside of five feet during the regular season, and even they managed to hit 54.5% of their interior attempts.

Making just 13-of-30 is bad. Really, really, really bad.

How did it happen?

Roy Hibbert.

He has been a rim-protecting giant all season long, but Game 1 was arguably his finest hour, at least when you consider the stage. In the team’s opening round-two game, almost no Knicks got uncontested look inside.

Hibbert wasn’t having it.

But as is his style, this wasn’t about a shot blocker stalking the paint and leaping from all angles to swat shots into the stands. He doesn’t play like that. Since the start of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Hibbert has used a combination of height, discipline, timing and technique to prevent the opposition from scoring at the rim.

It’s a simple strategy: The 7’2″ center just waits at the rim for anyone who would dare challenge him then he jumps straight up in the air, extends his yardstick arms and creates the biggest barricade that anyone in the league can put between a hopeful scorer and the basket.

It’s a formidable means of preventing layups, and Hibbert did it over and over against the Knicks.

As Jason Kidd pointed out after the game, according to Charlie Widdoes of Knicks Now, the Pacers funnel all penetrators towards the middle — where Hibbert builds his wall. “They’re a big team, and they invite you to go see the big fella,” said Kidd.

It hasn’t always been like this.

Hibbert didn’t have this ability when he entered the NBA. For this to work, it takes optimal timing and discipline to succeed. It makes me think of the scene in Braveheart when William Wallace’s warriors await the charging English cavalry. As the noblemen’s minions bear down on the ragtag rebellion, Wallace yells out his orders. “Hold …. Hold …. Hold … HOOOLD.” Then, at the last second, they pull up their giant, long spikes. The cavalry rides directly into the sharpened limbs, their own aggression becoming their undoing.

After the game, I asked Roy if there was a moment when he learned to use this verticality.

He didn’t hesitate before answering.

“The summer between my second and third year,” said Hibbert.

Unlike his normal routine since entering the NBA, he stayed around his coaches that offseason. “Instead of going home and working out, I stayed in Indiana,” he said. “Frank [Vogel] broke down some film for me of Dwight doing it.

Hibbert viewed the tape that his then-assistant coach prepared and realized just how effective the technique could be. “I watched it, and did drills over and over again after workouts,” he said. “I’m not just saying it because Frank is the coach [now]. He was an assistant — he wasn’t even the lead assistant. It was just something he threw in there.”

While seeing how well Howard made it work was somewhat of an epiphany, Hibbert said that the notion wasn’t entirely new. Going straight up for a block is something all big men are taught at an early age and something that he had unsuccessfully tried to incorporate into his game more during his rookie year, when he “stood straight up, but they called fouls.”

During that first year in the league, frustrated with constant foul trouble, the big guy changed up his style. “Half way through that, I was fouling too much, so I tried to take charges,” said Hibbert. “Charges weren’t working — I was too tall to take charges, and it messes with your body. So I just went ahead and learned to go straight up.”

With practice has come (near) perfection, and the focus that a young Vogel put in Hibbert’s mind only furthered his ability to maintain the discipline not to foul; instead of initiating the encounter at the rim, Roy now simply waits and absorbs the energy of the penetrator.

The last step was earning some respect.

Hibbert isn’t the only center who routinely prevents points in this manner. Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah and Dwight Howard all use the technique quite often. But it has become a point of emphasis among officials to respect the defender in such situations rather than immediately blow the whistle at the first sign of belly-to-belly contact.

And Hibbert, maybe more than any pro, has learned to use verticality to his advantage

“As long as you go straight up,” Hibbert says, the refs are now apt to swallow the whistle. “I tell them before the game that I do it.”

It worked during one of the Pacers most dramatic wins of the year. With the Pacers up two in the closing second against the Bulls in early December, Luol Deng beat Paul George with a backdoor cut. He caught the pass and elevated for the potential game-tying layup.

Roy rose. They met.

The ball was dislodged and fell out of bounds.

No call.

The Bulls were livid.

Carmelo Anthony seemed to have a similar outlook on Game 1 as Roy, who finished the game with five blocks, went vertical all night long. New York fans, and Carmelo, would probably tell you that he got a few benefits of the doubt from the officials.

I’m sure he did. And the more it went Hibbert’s way, the less spite Anthony could even muster. Towards the end, he just had to laugh off the no calls. Roy was also grinning, although for the opposite reason.

How this play is called for the rest of the series will likely loom large.

Just like the Big Fella.

There were almost too many instances of Roy going vertical to count in Game 1. Here are some of the best.

NOTE: I was tired and this clip is actually of Ian Mahinmi doing the same thing. I’ll pretend that the intention here was to show that Roy taught Ian how to do this.